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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A second-grade teacher at Riverwood Elementary in Cordova has died following COVID-19 complications.

Friends and those working with the school system identified the teacher as Ashley Leatherwood.

“She was very supportive, outgoing, she was very smart,” Robert Payne said about his friend. “I knew she had underlying health issues before COVID but I never would’ve thought she would be the one to catch COVID like this and it would take her away.”

Payne is also a teacher. He didn’t work with Leatherwood directly but says she helped him get ready for the upcoming school year.

We talked to Payne on the phone because he too tested positive for COVID-19. He talked to Leatherwood shortly after he tested positive for the virus.

“We were both saying how we were afraid of the new school year because everything is so open,” he said. “Her words were, ‘Well just take care of yourself and we’ll try to get over it.”

As the new school year gets started, Keith Williams, executive director of the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, said teachers’ health needs to be top of mind.

“We do think science, medicine is the direction. Not politics and not people who political motives. You have to speak to the issue of science and medication,” Williams said.

Payne says educators can only do so much. 

“It’s hard having a class and making sure everyone is keeping their hands clean, keeping their mask on, everybody is trying to stay apart,” he said. “If you know your child isn’t feeling well don’t send them to school.”

Payne says he wasn’t vaccinated.

“I think if I would’ve had the shot, I probably wouldn’t be as bad as I am,” he said. 

He now plans to get vaccinated before returning to the classroom.

As for Leatherwood, “I’m just going to miss her, and I really wish I could just have another conversation with her.”

Shelby County Schools said grief counselors are offering support for school staff and students.